If someone came up to me and told me that the Kings, Coyotes, Rangers and Devils would be the final four teams, I’d lock them up in an insane asylum. Absolutely nothing has gone as expected, and just like we saw with NCAA March Madness, everyone’s brackets have gone to hell–mine included. I went 1-3 last round, bringing my pathetic playoff total to a putrid 4-8. I can no longer get back to .500, but I can draw within one game if I get the final three series correct. Here goes nothing:
( 1 ) New York Rangers vs. ( 6 ) New Jersey Devils
Finally, we see a No. 1 seed advance to the final four. Given the way the playoffs unfolded, I’m really surprised we even have one top-four team remaining. The Rangers have got to be feeling exhausted having gone seven games against both the Senators and Capitals. A thrilling 2-1 win over the Caps on Saturday night thrust them into the Eastern Conference Finals. On the opposite side, the Devils haven’t played since last Tuesday–that can work as an advantage for rest, or a disadvantage for rust. Jersey came off an unexpected win over the Flyers in just five games, losing the first before winning four in a row. As I’ve said for years now, the best offence is a strong defence. I didn’t think the Devils had it in them to shut down a Philly offence like the one we saw score so many goals on the Penguins, but I was happily proven wrong. This will mark the third time since the lockout the two teams have met in the playoffs–Jersey swept an opening-round series in 2006, but the Rangers knocked them out in the first round two years later. Their last conference finals date was back in 1994 when legend Mark Messier called out a guaranteed victory.
New York’s offence has sputtered of late–after scoring four times in their opening game against Ottawa, the Rangers have gone 13 straight games without scoring more than three goals. And given the Devils’ shutdown defence, goals will be even harder to come by. New York’s powerplay has also quieted down of late, another aspect of their game that will need to pick up. On the PK, they’ve allowed at least one powerplay goal in eight of 14 postseason games, so they’ll need to tighten up.
The Rangers defence, however, has been just as stingy, allowing just 13 goals in seven games against the Caps. New Jersey’s offence is suddenly clicking on all fronts, with four lines capable of beating you. On special teams, they’ve scored a powerplay goal in four of their five games with the Flyers, and after their PK looked horrendous against the Panthers allowing nine powerplay goals in just seven games, they were day-and-night better against the Flyers, going 16/19. With the Rangers’ recent struggles, the offensive edge has to go to the defensive-minded Devils.
One thing that has raised a major red flag for me has been head coach John Tortorella’s use of his defencemen. While they have been outstanding, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal rank 1-2-3 in total ice time. New York is second in blocked shots, with Girardi and McDonagh at as No. 1 and 2 in the playoffs–yes, this is the playoffs, and everything is on the line, but one must wonder whether fatigue will catch up to them. Can they keep up at this rate, especially if this series goes the distance?
One guy who will need to pick his game up is F Marian Gaborik. After scoring 41 times during the regular season, he’s been pretty much non-existent in the playoffs, aside from the triple-OT goal and game-winning assist. His clutch play has been good, but more consistency is needed for them to get past the Devils’ defence. F Ryan Callahan has just one goal in his last 10 playoff games, and while he’s one of those players that does the ‘little things,’ his scoring touch is direly needed. F Ilya Kovalchuk, on the other hand, is on fire. After being criticized for his massive contract, Kovy had two goals and five assists in four games against the Flyers, and will be the Rangers’ top priority on defence. He has 12 points in 11 games thus far, and leads all NHL forwards in average ice time per game.
The goaltending matchup should be in fine form. G Martin Brodeur, arguably the best of all-time, going head-to-head with G Henrik Lundqvist. King Henrik dominated season play when these two teams met, but obviously the playoffs is entirely different.
The Rangers have been good, but not good enough. The longer this series goes, the worse it is for them. Jersey continues to get better as they play more, and it’ll be their offensive depth that knocks off the Rangers.
Pick: Devils in 6
( 3 ) Phoenix Coyotes vs. ( 8 ) Los Angeles Kings
Betcha didn’t see this one coming. The very underrated Kings finally make a serious splash in the playoffs, while the ‘Yotes make the trip riding their incredibly hot goaltender, G Mike Smith. Many expected the team to flake out after G Ilya Bryzgalov signed with the Flyers, but this team has done anything but. Their biggest criticism as they inch closer to the Stanley Cup, is that there’s a team in the final four being run by the NHL. Not good news.
First and foremost, the goalie matchup should be absolutely electric. Smith versus G Jon Quick, sporting a .948 and .949 SV%, respectively. Both teams will be looking in the mirror in order to win, having to find faults in their own game in order to expose weaknesses in the other. Lots of crashing the net, lots of traffic and throwing pucks on net. Expect a lot of ugly goals. Both teams struggled to score in the regular season, but nothing has been further from the truth in the playoffs.
Helping both teams’ goaltending has been stellar defensive play. Both teams have one star defenceman among relative no-names, but both have been incredibly sharp, with solid positioning and shotblocking. The Kings are working at a 8.5% powerplay rate (4/47), while Phoenix sits at 16.1% (5/31), so given that goals will likely come at a premium, getting the powerplay going could be an enormous advantage for either side. Of course, the PK is a non-issue at either end, with LA at 92.1% (35/38) and Phoenix at 89.5% (34/38).
I’m taking the Kings. I’ve been wrong a lot, and I’ll probably be wrong here too. Phoenix has been unreal against two teams they weren’t supposed to beat, yet here they are. That said, the Kings took out the Canucks and Blues as the top two teams in the West. Could they be the team of destiny?
Pick: Kings in 6
2007-08: 12-3 (80%)
2008-09: 10-5 (67%)
2009-10: 9-6 (60%)
2010-11: 8-7 (53%)
Total: 39/60 = 65%
2007-08: 11-4 (73%)
2008-09: 9-6 (60%)
2009-10: 11-4 (73%)
2010-11: 11-4 (73%)
Total: 42/60 = 70%
2008: 5-2 (71%)
2009: 4-3 (57%)
2010: 3-4 (43%)
2011: 4-3 (57%)
Total: 16/28 = 57%
2008-09: 9-2 (82%)
2009-10: 7-4 (64%)
2010-11: 8-3 (73%)
2011-12: 8-3 (73%)
Total: 32/44 = 73%